Trying to raise my kids the best I can

Monday, June 28, 2010

Mistakes I've made along the way

Some things I will do differently next year:
  1. Start (nearly) every plant in the greenhouse in early spring
  2. Buy gardening gloves
  3. While I'm planting the seedlings in the plastic, straighten out the drip tape so it goes right down the middle
  4. Not kill the ladybugs!
  5. Buy all the seeds in late winter.  This year I didn't get the watermelon in because we never had the money for the seeds!.  :(  But really.  If there's a will there's a way.  You just have to MAKE a way.  It reminds me of a Jeanette Oak novel I read when I was a kid, in which the impoverished farming family endured three years of no water.  And on that third or fourth year they had no money but the mom sold her precious heirloom china to buy seeds to plant in the hopes that this would be the year that the rains came.  And they did.
  6. Put the bags of fertilizer in individual garbage bags.  We stacked them up on a tarp this year and covered them with another tarp, but they still managed to get wet.  Some of the bags are falling apart and the fertilizer inside is rotting.  Also, sometimes when I come, the tarp is pulled back.  I don't know if it's the wind or an animal.  Is there a creature that could possibly like to eat fertilizer??  If it's a human I don't really mind.  I'm a very "mi casa, su casa" kind of person.  If someone needs to borrow something of mine they are welcome to it.  And if they want it and I don't need it they are welcome to it too.

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Let's talk drip tape

When Don, the farm maintenance man layed the drip tape he ran out before my last three rows.  Even though I had paid for them, I didn't mind because I've been really relying on the other farmers a lot this year for sourcing and transporting materials, so it's sort of my turn to contribute- if you want to think of it that way.  There was old drip tape in the shed that I could use.  When I mentioned that I was going to lay it to McKenzie she exchanged an odd look with the other person in the room, as if I didn't know what I was in for.  I found out the next day when I lay the drip tape.  Unlike, say, crepe paper, you can't undo a twist by just flipping it, because then the twist will just pass to the other side of your hand.  Sooooo, you have to twist the whole length of drip tape at once.  The only way to do this is to hold the entire thing in your hand while you lay it and untwist it before it goes on the ground.  Luckily someone had wrapped the thing nicely.  Two of them were too short so I have to buy a connecting thingy.  In the meantime I'm using duct tape, which is OK but not great.  Necessity really is the mother of invention.  Just like when I used the back side of an ax to hammer in the tomato stakes since I didn't have a hammer. 

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Learning

I learned a few things at the farm today:

  • If you don't stake the tomatoes in its early stages it will grow like pumpkins, spreading across the ground.  Speaking of tomatoes; I have a few tiny ones and they make the plant smell heavenly
  • I gathered a bunch of the South-East-Asian-lettuce for my in-laws that were in full bloom.  When I presented them, they asked if this was the whole crop and I proudly told them that there was so much more back in the field!  Later my husband told me that what they really meant when they asked me that was: "You idiot!  You pulled them up by the roots!  Now they won't grow back."  ha ha.   Live and learn.  I'm not sure how I'm supposed to pull them up without the root though.  It slides out with a gentle tug.  I'm sure I'll figure it out next time.  Maybe it was for the best though.  I think they needed to be thinned.   
  • It's really important to keep the tools you are using on your person.  If you put it down, you will inevitably walk away from it and good luck finding it among all the plants!  This is especially true for me given my weed "situation".  I suddenly understood the value of those little loops in pants for holding hammers/tools!  These days it's just a fashion accessory.  But, dang, if you need it, it's really handy.  
  • When using the weed wacker always use goggles.  This of course isn't something I tried for even one minute.  But if I had tried it for one minute I would have discovered that the thing sprays you head to toe in green bits and pieces and it seems to me that one catch of a rock or dirt would result in permanent blindness.  All weed wackers should have an attachment for the storage of goggles to encourage use.  Luckily, I found some in a bin in the shed.  I was very proud of myself for getting the weed wacker started.  It took me a good fifteen minutes to figure out. I'm not mechanically inclined at all.  My husband is a mechanically inclined prodigy.  That's the beauty of marriage.  Complimenting each other.  "As iron sharpens iron", goes the expression.   This reminds me of a funny story from when we were dating.  His cell phone got locked somehow.  It was very peculiar.  He played with it extensively.  This is the sort of thing he can figure out.  But he just couldn't get it.  It's the sort of thing I could never figure out.  But I had the stroke of genius to go downstairs and call the cell phone company and get the code to unlock it.  I went upstairs and begged him to try.  I insisted that I could do it.  After a long while he begrudgingly let me try.  Beep beep beep beep.  I punched in the code and unlocked it.  He just about died.  I didn't tell him how I knew!!!  It was awesome!!!!  He worshiped my feet.  That was back in the early dating stage when you're still trying to impress the person.  I definitely scored points for that one.
OK, back to farming...Remember a few Sunday's ago the word nematode kept repeating in my head while I weeded?  Well today the word was aphid*!  I wasn't even sure what those words meant until I looked them up when I got home!  What a bizarre phenomenon.  Farming has a unique mind-clearing quality.

I bet I know what the farmer's wife's  favorite modern day invention is... the cell phone.  Otherwise it's impossible to get a hold of a farmer.  They are out there in, practically, the middle of no where.  And at about 300 feet the ability to understand what a person is saying drops way off.  On a related note: walking back and forth across the field, to the source of water, the shed, etc, is hugely time consuming.  It's really important to think three steps ahead to determine what you are going to need in the future.



*aphid:  A pest.  Numerous tiny soft-bodied insects that suck the sap from the stems and leaves of various plants, some developing wings when overcrowding occurs.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

An Improptu Mentoring Session

Mckenzie and I pulled up to the farm at the same time today so she got to go over the state-of-the-field with me.    It was so convenient! I'm a spontaneous person anyway, so it works out even better for me than if we had scheduled something.  She showed me what she means when she says "weeding".  She pointed to an itty bitty bitty little green sprout and said I had to get that out.  I'm like, "are you serious?!"  But then she showed me how she does it: raking her fingers through the dirt really fast, just kind of bulldozing it.  It looked like a very do-able technique.  And I imagine if you're on top of your weeds like that it might actually take less time on the long run.  She said you should do it very very fast.  She's always talking about being fast and efficient and I totally understand why.  The profit margins on farming are very very very thin.  So keeping your man hours low is the only way to make it profitable.

In my original CSA* plan- back in late winter, I had committed to bringing in 120 bunches of beets this week and last.   Today I turned in four bunches because the rest weren't big enough.  Pathetic I know.  It's because I didn't weed them until it was too late so they were competing for nutrients and space.  Plus they could be thinned more.  It's interesting how a beet by itself can be twice the size of two beets side-by-side.  Thankfully, my CSA coordinator, Matthew is a total angel and he was very nice about it.  He says this year is a learning year.  The next time I harvest the beets (my next commitment is in 6 weeks) I will do it in the early morning before they've gotten any heat from the day.  Then immediately rinse them in cool water.  McKenzie says that's the difference between a beet or lettuce that will last one day and one that will last two weeks. 

I learned how to stake the tomato plants.  Home gardeners are probably familiar with the fancy circular metal stakes for tomatoes, but this way is cheaper, in my opinion cooler, and more feasible for large crops of tomatoes.  This is how you do it: Every two plants you pound in a stake deeply with a hammer.  Then using twine (I was wondering why I had to buy twine) you tie it tightly between the two stakes and then go back again.  This is the tricky part.  The twine makes a figure eight around the two plants/a criss-cross in the middle.    So basically the plant is going to grow through the narrow space between the two twines.  (Is twines a word?)   Repeat it every six inches up the stake. And when you have a whole row of tomatoes like me, repeat it another dozen or so times.  This, of course, should be done very very fast, as per McKenzie's instructions..  lol. 

*CSA   Community Supported Agriculture.  It's all the rage these days.  It's where the community basically invests in a farmer, so that he or she isn't taking on the whole risk and investment themself.  The customer buys a "share" for something like $700 a year. Sometimes they offer big and small shares; every week or every other week, that sort of thing.  Then you go to the designated pick up place and you get your fresh picked vegetables of the week.  Usually the harvest is bountiful so it pays for itself.  It's local.  It's (almost always, depending on the farm) organic.  It's a win-win for everyone.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A ghetto surprise

I live in the city, above an African Salon ("Salon D'Afrique").  Next to my apartment is a laundromat.  Today I was in the garbage strewn parking lot, between the two buildings, putting my daughter in her stroller, when I saw in the cracks of the pavement an itty bitty carrot top.  I bent down and pulled it up by the roots and it did have a straight root like a carrot.  Could it be a wild carrot?  In the middle of the city?  I chewed it and, to my surprise, it was!  I looked around and found some more in other cracks!  I picked and ate them all.  (though, given their size, maybe "tasted" is a more appropriate word.)  It's so exciting to me to be gaining some agriculture knowledge, that I can spot a plant and recognize it's leaf.  It reminds me of a random project I once did, (I'm known for those) in which I picked, dried, and cataloged every type of weed in my yard.  There were literally hundreds of them.  I just taped them into this little crayola construction paper booklet.  I never bothered looking up their names, but I did have a good time putting them in categories of similarity- pointy leaves, round leaves, multiple leaves per stem, single leaf per stem, one vein per leaf, multiple veins per leaf, etc. etc.  It was loads of fun; a chance to just admire the diversity all around us that we take for granted.  I had fantasies of discovering a new species.

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Sunday, June 20, 2010

A new blog

This week I attended a three day conference on city planning.  It was fascinating.  I am so grateful to have been able to attend it.  I got an email about it several months ago because I'm on a city mailing list.  The cost was $150 and I knew I couldn't afford it but the conference is practically in my back yard (I walked there) so it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.  I emailed my Congresswoman, Niki Tsongas, who was going to be the chairman of the event, and I told her that I really would like to attend but I can't afford a ticket but if she had an extra to share with me I would be grateful.  One of her staff wrote back and they said the best they could do for me was half off.  I gratefully accepted.  But two days before the event they informed me that they put me on the media list (as a writer).  I had sent them a link to this blog post to show my interest in the subject.   I got in for free!  Not to mention I got a cool media pass.  (Timmy teased me that he could easily make one).

Anyway, the event was fabulous.  It's such a refreshing change from stay-at-home life.  The chance to dress up and partake in stimulating conversation and listen to experts on a subject you have so much to learn about. I took notes voraciously and will be typing it all up on a new blog.  I have decided to start a new blog because I would like to have something more professional to put on a business card to hand out at events like these.  I will link to all the more professional articles that I write on this blog.  I think most of my readers would prefer it that way anyway.  For the time being, this blog will primarily be farm posts but that is only temporary.  I have decided to compile all of those posts and hopefully make a book out of it because I've gotten some good feedback on them.  The website is www.thethinkingforum.blogspot.com

Weeding is a form of meditation

The other day Mckenzie emailed me and mentioned gently that it looks like I'm a little behind on weeding and planting and would I like to meet with her?  I'm glad she positioned her question nonchalantly because I was very sensitive about the pathetic state of my farm.  I forwarded the email to my husband because he hasn't been to the farm in a while (he got a new job) and he was really clueless about the state of things.  Her email was the wake-up call he needed so he went with me to the farm after a long day of work even though he was exhausted.  We managed to go without the kids so it was kind of like a date.  We sat across from each other and planted our pepper seedlings.  It was romantic.   The only thing that would have made it more cliche was, perhaps a love making scene.  But that's never going to happen.  Too freakin dirty there.  No pun intended.  He said that we went faster if I dug the holes and he pulled out all the seedlings from the tray.  I know he just wanted to do that job because it's the fun one.  I didn't care though.  I like all the jobs. 

After seeing the disastrous state of things, he's made it a higher priority for me to get to the farm.  In life you have choices.  And every thing you do is , whether you like it or not, a choice not to do other things.  I learned that from this candid black woman at a conference for pre-med students at UMASS med school.  During the question & answer section this one girl was saying she wanted to be a forensic pathologist but she couldn't take advantage of this scholarship because of bla bla bla and she couldn't take this pre-med class because of bla bla bla.  And the awesome professor totally set her straight and explained that if she wanted to be a Med student she had to find a way to do it.   I've been thinking a lot about this concept because farming is really displacing a lot of other things in my life.  I haven't been to the gym in weeks!!!!  The only reason I'm OK with that is that I'm still getting a fair amount of exercise walking and biking around town and working on the farm.

Today farming displaced church.  This, of course, is a source of guilt because I do try to follow the commands of the Lord and one of them is to observe the sabbath.  I spent a good deal of time contemplating the situation as I weeded in the peaceful field by myself.  Weeding is meditative to me.  It is a form of rest to me.  So how could this be breaking the sabbath?  In this day and age, getting up and dressed and dragging the kids out the door to church seems as much like work as every other day in which we do the same thing to go to school and work and errands.  So how is that a day of rest?  So, even though I am not against Sunday church service, I think it is a bit of a mistake to insinuate that attending church meets the qualifications of a sabbath observed.

 As I sat there weeding, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata went through my head.  It's a beautiful song, but when you only a know three bars of the song, like me, it gets old fast.  After the 10th run through your mind you kind of want to bash your head in.  I also kept thinking the word "nematode" over and over (microscopic worm/parasite) for no particular reason.  Normally my mind is always racing with ideas and thoughts.  Perhaps it's good for me to sometimes think of nothingness.

By the time I left I had gotten all the weeding caught up.  It was the most gratifying feeling ever.  Especially after the previous week in which we were falling behind and I had nightmares that I had accidentally pulled up all my carrots. 

Speaking of carrots, I've eaten a few of them.  They are itty bitty.  One might even mistake it for a weed.  But... and this might seem obvious, but to me it is fascinating... it tastes like carrot.    How can something so small capture a taste essence so perfectly?  I also brought home a bunch of fully grown beets in a basket.  The pride you feel in home-grown produce makes all the time and money investment worth it.  And I don't even like beets.  lol.  Well, I'm starting to like them now.  The only experience I have with them is every Easter when my mom serves pickled beets.  I never touch them (and I eat everything).  I can imagine how it became an Easter tradition though- back in the days when there weren't super-markets.  Easter came at the end of winter, so there was nothing but pickled/canned/dried produce left to eat.  Nothing fresh. 

When I was speaking with a Portuguese neighbor, I told him I was going to plant watermelon and he immediately protested that it was too late.  These immigrant gardeners really know there stuff.  I knew I was in trouble when he said that.  So I came up with a brilliant plan b.  I have decided to drive several hours north to a farm in New Hampshire and buy a crap-load of strawberry plants.  I have to call them first and see if they will bear fruit this year or not.  I only want the ones that will.  Sure, it will be more expensive than the watermelon seeds would have been, but there's no way I'm just letting all that land go to waste and I really had my heart set on fruit.

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Steal this book

Bugs

The variety of bugs you come across is amazing.  A lot of spiders, surprisingly.  Also a huge amount of ladybugs.  At first we thought they were adorable.  Until we figured out that they weren't just there to look pretty.  So we killed dozens of them.  Then I went home and googled them and found out that they are called "A gardners best friend" because they eat pests.  DOH!

After a day at the farm, one evening, I was breastfeeding Saphira and I saw a tick on the back of her earlobe (ironically, the same place I found one on my son when he was her age). I'm so lucky to have caught it. The risk of lyme disease transmission is minimal to nil in the first 24 hours. Nevertheless I was pretty vexed. Even more frightening was finding another tick on my scalp the next day! - possibly more than 24 hours after attachment!

The last report I did in school when I got my RN was on Lyme Disease so, of course, I'm pretty phobic of it. It can range from mild to incapacitating. And it has the unenviable distinction of being a controversial disease. Meaning that, if you have a severe case of it, you will be hard-pressed to find a doctor to prescribe the long-term antibiotics that you need. This is because (soap box rant here:) the medical community is so ridiculously paranoid about causing a super bug. If they were so concerned they should look at the larger root of the problem- the factory styled farms that pump out our meat supply, at the cost of unsanitary conditions and the necessary antibiotics to keep this practice viable.

I happen to know the real cure to Lyme Disease. OK, it hasn't been proven, but it worked for the author of Cure Unknown: Inside the Lyme Epidemic and it makes a lot of sense scientifically. I will share it with you for the minority reader who will actually care: When someone with Lyme Disease takes a round of antibiotics they will experience a herxheimer response, in which they get really sick from all the spirochetes dying. But a certain percentage of spirochetes remain protected, in cyst form. When those come out of hibernation the body is, once again, ravaged by Lyme Disease. But if a patient were to take three rounds of antibiotics, with a break in between each, to allow the cysts to revert to spirochete form they can kill (theoretically) them all.

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Depressing

Today, when I went to the farm the weeds were everywhere. It makes me think of the verses in Genesis 3.

"Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.

18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.

19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground"

Yup. Depressing. My neighbor farmer, Dominic, and I commiserated. He commented that the weeds were all-consuming. I have three beds (200 feet each) that aren't covered by black plastic and they are 100% weeds. Just one long row of green. Half of it was never planted on. I may just give up on them. Or maybe there is a way to just dig up all the weeds at once since there are no plants to avoid. The rows of black plastic are beautiful to look at. One lone plant in the middle. No weeds surrounding it. I could kiss it. I think next year I'll do all black plastic. I'm not sure if that's even possible with the small roots- carrots and beets, but if there is a way, I will find it.

Black plastic is kind of ugly. In a nearby town (think: snooty, upperclass) there is this public garden for all the kids to learn how to plant in. I was reading the plan for it and it said there would not be any ugly black plastic (I can't remember the exact wording); that it would be all natural practices, etc. I think that environmentally concerned citizens have this idealized dream of sustainable farming practices. And there is nothing wrong with that. It's like this goal that we should shoot for. And certainly there are things that non-negotiable- like cancer causing pesticides. But it's easy to judge without a full understanding of farming. I am slowly learning that hard lesson. I remember, before this year of farming, reading about how to make a green house. I decided that if I were to make a green house I wouldn't use PCV piping which is environmentally irresponsible. But at my New Entry training they did a brief overview of how to make a green house and there was no discussion of alternatives to PCV piping, which makes me think that an alternative is not very viable- either because of labor or material cost.

I spent a great deal of time weeding the carrots. We pulled various green stems to see which was the top of a carrot. We decided that carrots were kind of whitish with a straight root-no little hairy roots branching off. Once we got that straight we had at it. But I doubt my farm mentors will even be able to tell that I weeded. It still looks overgrown.

We didn't have time to touch the beet weeds. Though I admit to pulling up one beet, brushing the dirt off and attempting to bite it to see what it tastes like. I guess you really need to wash it though to get rid of that dirt taste.

I planted two more trays of peppers. I have two more to go. I'm almost done!

I checked the pumpkin seeds I planted several days ago. The seeds hadn't even cracked open yet. Like the weed problem: Depressing. I'm beginning to think I've missed the window of opportunity to plant our watermelon and cantaloupe, which basically my whole budget rested on this year. Depressing. Next year I think I'll sprout them indoors in May. I don't mind taking a financial hit this year. It was more for the experience than anything.

The last several times I've gone to the farm I was alone (or with small children). I think it's dumb how people can be excited about something in theory but when it comes time to actually doing the work, they're no where to be seen. I think there is something deep down in my soul that needs to be close to nature and that motivates me to go. Maybe that is why I'm so sensitive to sunlight. I don't do well with night shifts and the short days of winter. Also, I enjoy working hard. I think that's because I moved every other year growing up. When moving day came you just pick up a box and carry it to the moving truck. Repeat as necessary. And if you did it slowly the job never got done, but if you did it quickly, it did.

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Predators!

We saw a rainbow on the way to the farm. Dimitri wanted to look for the pot of gold. I told him it was a myth. Strangely, I've heard songs about rainbows a lot over the past few days. Cue the twilight music. My mom would just say that "I'm just more aware of it" but I don't think so.

When we got out of the Mango (that's what we call our Dodge Durango) a fellow farmer met me and said that our field had been ravaged by the turkeys. Terror filled my heart as I headed to the field. All that work! It could be gone in an instant! For one minute I actually felt sympathy for my mean old neighbor who killed my bunny. I used to let my bunny wander the back yard and it would sneak under the fence and eat my neighbors garden.

Thankfully the field was OK. Only about a half dozen plants had been eaten. It was kind of cute. They were all in a row. All their stems bitten off. You could just imagine the creature munching on them. I kind of hope they were the deer and not the turkey. Deer are cuter. I got word that they've put up electric fencing since then. Hopefully that will take care of it.

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Friday, June 04, 2010

Rain or Shine

Day four at the farm. It was pouring out all afternoon, but I was going to go; rain or shine. I have about $70 worth of seedlings in the greenhouse that are drying out like the Sahara. And that's just what I paid for them. Their crop value is in the hundreds. So I was going to go and water them and, rain or shine, plant as many as I could. It made me think of those stories in the Laura Ingles books where the whole family has to get up in the middle of the night to save the crops from an unexpected frost. We farmers gotta do what we gotta do. But thankfully it wasn't raining when I got there.

I wore my husband's mechanic outfit and some boots. I've pretty much given up on wearing my own clothes. I just leave covered in mud anyway and it's only a matter of time before I blow out the knees in the pants.

When I got there I met a new neighboring farmer, Tim. He was making three rows and they were beautiful. Dang, all these perfectionist farmers are making me look bad. It was nice to have a friend nearby though. We chit chatted about how there is so much to do and everything is top priority; there is nothing that can wait. And we both said at the same time: "why do we do this to ourselves?" lol. For me: I have to plant my seedlings, plant my melons, and weed my beets and carrots. It's all urgent. The beets, by the way, look about the same as they did before I weeded them last time. It's very depressing.

I spent the next two hours planting seedlings. The tomato plants were looking very sad. Hopefully I saved them. When they were still in the trays I watered them all, seemingly enough. But when we took them all out there was only two millimeters of wet dirt. I had no idea how much water it took to really water them.

Dimitri was with me. I dug holes, fertilized them, then he put the plant in and filled in the dirt. The plants slipped right out of the square with a gentle tug on the stem. It was a satisfying feeling to pull them out- if that makes any sense. It was the perfect job for him. He also did some watering (all the kids favorite job). By the end he just sat there next to me. We chatted and he showed off the math problems that he knew. It was the sort of lackadaisical conversation that would be hard to have at home with all of the distractions.

When you mix in the (organic) fertilizer it's important to mix it in or the nitrogen just evaporates. Keeping Nitrogen in the soil is a constant goal of the farmer. One way to do this is to plant soybeans or peas which are nitrogen fixers. They don't actually add Nitrogen but they don't take it away either. The other way- and this is an important thing all farmers must do- is to let a part of their field "fallow" every couple of years. You just plant a cover crop like clovers and let it rest. Another way to utilize every part of the land (especially here where land is so valuable) is to plant clovers in the walking paths so they can be enriched while the beds are being drained. It's also helpful in reducing the mud. Oddly, water treatment facilities dump so much Nitrogen into lakes that they have to pay Nitrogen credits because of the oxygen it depletes and the algae it creates. It's too bad you can't make fertilizer out of that. Well, that's a whole other issue. I read a book about the sludge from water treatment being used as fertilizer and all the terrible chronic diseases and cancers the farmers got from it. There are so many toxins being dumped in our sewage supply ranging from embalming chemicals from funeral homes to pharmaceuticals dumped down household drains . That's an environmental issue that really needs to be addressed.

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